Rich Ross to head Walt Disney Studios

Disney Channels Worldwide topper to replace Cook

The ascent of Disney Channels Worldwide chief Rich Ross to chairman of Walt Disney Studios speaks volumes about the areas the studio intends to focus on in the future.

Ross earned his promotion by proving to be a master brand builder at the Disney Channel and its myriad worldwide offshoots. His appointment signals the Mouse House plans to focus heavily, though not exclusively, on franchises that not only drive B.O. but can also generate biz for other divisions like TV, licensing and merchandising, homevid and online.

That kind of incremental profit-making out of core Disney Channel properties like “Hannah Montana,” “That’s So Raven” and “Wizards of Waverly Place” is what turned Ross into Disney’s brightest exec star in recent years. And the Mouse will have plenty more brand-friendly properties to play with in the coming years as it becomes master of the Marvel universe.

Ross will oversee all production, distribution and marketing for the company’s live-action and animated feature labels, including Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone, Miramax and Disney/Pixar. He’ll also oversee its music group and theatrical productions, which range from Broadway tuners to touring shows a la “High School Musical” and “Disney on Ice.” He reports to Disney prexy-CEO Bob Iger.

Ross “has created huge value for the company running the Disney Channels,” Iger told Daily Variety. “He turned that channel into a real creative engine for the company, and an effective means of delivering content and supporting the brand on a global basis. The leader of the studio needs very much to be able to do that.”

Mouse insiders indicated that Ross’ elevation had been under consideration since before Dick Cook abruptly ankled his post as Disney Studios chairman on Sept. 18. Iger has made no secret internally of his admiration for the success of Ross’ group and his skill as a manager.

The turnover at Disney Studios comes on the heels of a string of B.O. disappointments for the Mouse this year. But Iger emphasized that the change at the top of the studio was driven by a number of factors, and not just the traction of Mouse pics at the turnstiles.

“You don’t look at one year (of B.O.) and make conclusions,” Iger said. “In general, it’s a business that is undergoing a fair amount of change, and the movie business needs to adapt.” Ross, given his background, brings a fresh perspective on the myriad challenges.

But as much as change is enveloping the business side, Iger said. “there’s no question that creating high-quality films is the most important thing. The need to adapt to change comes secondary to the need to make films that are good.”

Disney more than any other Hollywood major places a premium on family-friendly fare that bolsters the Disney brand, travels well around the world and has the potential to become an evergreen property in many mediums. That’s not to say that “every film will do or can do that,” Iger added.

It’s understood that Disney had intended to give Cook, a 38-year company vet, a more graceful send-off, but once Cook was informed the changeover was coming, he decided to leave on his own timetable. That move caught many at Disney off guard and led to two weeks of mounting speculation about Ross’ promotion until the Mouse made it official Monday afternoon, a day on which Universal Pictures had already announced its own exec shakeup.

The big question for Disney now is how Ross might adjust the studio’s management hierarchy and its operations. News of his promotion comes on the heels of Disney’s announcement Friday that it would reduce the number of annual releases by Miramax and have Disney’s film wing handle the label’s marketing, distribution and administrative operations (Daily Variety, Oct. 5).

Iger acknowledged that Disney “has made a lot of moves in terms of the overall picture for the studio from an output perspective” in recent months, but any further changes will be made by Rich after “he had the opportunity to learn more about the studio and its businesses.”

Ross has some experience working with execs at the film studio, the homevid division and the theatrical productions group because Disney Channel franchises have been spread far and wide throughout the company. He’s said to have a friendly relationship with John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and principal creative advisor of Walt Disney Imagineering, after the two worked together on the “Cars Toons” series of shorts that began airing on Disney Channel last year.

As an outsider to the traditional film biz, Ross will have to forge ties with the prominent producers, helmers and thesps who work frequently with the studio, including Jerry Bruckheimer, Robert Zemeckis, Scott Rudin and Johnny Depp, as well as DreamWorks principals Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider, who inked a distribution pact with Disney earlier this year.

Ross won’t have trouble expanding his circle of creative partners, said helmer Kenny Ortega, who worked closely with the exec to turn “High School Musical” into a billion-dollar global powerhouse.

“He’s personable, he’s intelligent, he’s worldly — I find him to be an exciting, electric person,” Ortega told Daily Variety, who added that Ross has a flair for making creative talent feel supported and appreciated. Ross, notably, was a key player in grooming Miley Cyrus from novice thesp to high-profile star.

“He’s absolutely invested in every project he does. You can tell he really enjoys what he does,” Ortega said.

Ross was unavailable for comment Monday. In a statement, he emphasized the Mouse’s tradition of serving the family aud.

“There has never been a better time to entertain our global audiences with high-quality and compelling content and introduce new characters that will become family favorites,” Ross said.

Ross joined Disney as senior veep of programming and production at Disney Channel in 1996, and was upped to prexy in 2004. During his tenure, the company has grown to encompass 94 channels available in 163 countries and 32 languages. The Disney Channel group also includes the preschooler Playhouse Disney and boy-centric Disney XD, which was revamped from Toon Disney earlier this year at Ross’ instigation to balance Disney Channel’s core strength with young femmes.

Disney Channel has been TV’s top tween and kid 6-11 brand for most of the past decade thanks to its string of original series and telepic hits that also include “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody,” “Lizzie McGuire,” “The Cheetah Girls” and most recently, “Jonas” and “Sonny With a Chance.” With Cyrus as well as “Waverly Place” star Selena Gomez, “Sonny” star Demi Lovato and “Raven’s” Raven-Symone, Disney Channel has nurtured multi-faceted personalities with lucrative crossover biz in music, retail and pic realms.

Ross is now the second high-ranking Disney exec to come from the Disney Channel fold, as his boss Anne Sweeney was elevated from Disney Channel prexy in 2004 to head all of Disney-ABC’s TV operations, other than ESPN. Ross has been closely aligned with Sweeney for much of his career, having worked with her at Nickelodeon and FX in the 1980s and ’90s before they both moved to the Mouse in 1996.

Sweeney told staffers on Monday that an announcement on a successfor for Ross will come in a few weeks.

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